News broke Friday of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes on an ISIS-held area in Syria, resulting in as many as 106 civilian casualties. The airstrikes came on the heels of the military’s confirmation that U.S. strikes on Mosul, Iraq in March had resulted in more than 100 civilian casualties, adding to the year’s already significant civilian death toll in the fight against ISIS. Even as reports of these deaths multiply, however, the U.S. is rolling back transparency and will no longer identify when civilian casualties result from American airstrikes.
U.S. Central Command has, in the past, confirmed some reports of U.S. airstrikes that resulted in civilian deaths, albeit far fewer than the number reported by most civil society organizations. Now, they will reportedly reverse this long-standing practice in favor of reporting only “coalition” strikes. Ostensibly at the request of other coalition countries, CentCom reports will begin to list only the aggregate number of airstrikes and confirmed civilian casualties, without stating which country carried out each strike. This change will weaken the ability of the public and Congress to hold the military accountable, and will make it nearly impossible for families of civilian victims to seek further information and compensation for their losses, as they are allowed to do under the Foreign Claims Act.
Even before this change, credible watchdog groups accused the Pentagon of vastly under-counting the number of civilians killed in American airstrikes. AirWars, whose widely-cited numbers include only reported incidents with substantial supporting evidence, says the military undercounts by nearly ten-fold. Amnesty International called on the U.S. to “come clean” about the extent of civilian casualties from coalition airstrikes in Syria, citing satellite imagery and witness testimony that disputes the military’s low figures.
The year's uptick in civilian casualties makes this a particularly troubling time for the Pentagon to be shrouding its anti-ISIS campaign in secrecy. It’s possible that the spike is a result of the White House loosening the rules of engagement for the military, granting greater authority to conduct airstrikes at a lower level of command. The Obama Administration issued a directive in January, reportedly allowing some American officers stationed in Iraq to order airstrikes without first requesting permission up the chain of command. And while the Pentagon claimed in March that there had been no change in the rules, President Trump has reportedly further diminished the White House role overseeing the military.
Defense Secretary James Mattis has offered vague statements on how the fight against ISIS has changed under President Trump, announcing that the President has ordered new, more aggressive tactics. Mattis also confirmed that the White House has given military commanders more authority, but again denied that that the rules of engagement have changed. The public – and Congress – has little means of assessing these claims, as the administration has not yet released its new anti-ISIS strategy. The White House has also failed to provide the legal justification for its January raid in Yemen, and its airstrike against the Assad regime in April.
After the Mosul airstrike, the United Nations called on the U.S.-led coalition to review its tactics and better protect civilians. Congress has pushed for greater oversight over the use of military force, and called on the Trump administration to release its still-secret plan to defeat ISIS. It is clear that the American public needs more information on how decisions to use military force are being made, what measures are being taken to reduce harm to civilians, and how the Pentagon is handling investigations of and accountability for civilian casualties. Certainly, now is not the time to be limiting the public’s already narrow window into how the military is operating overseas.